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The Wrongful Act Doctrine in Florida Injury Cases

car wreckFlorida follows the ‘American Rule.’ Each party pays their own attorney’s fees, irrespective of whether they win or lose, unless there is some contract, statute, or court rule that says otherwise. This lets people file lawsuits without the fear of incurring excessive costs if they lose the case. The American Rule is in contrast to the English Rule, which mandates that the losing party always pays the winning party’s attorney’s fees.

An exception to the American Rule is the ‘Wrongful Act Doctrine,’ which allows a plaintiff to recover from a defendant, as an additional element of damages, the plaintiff’s litigation costs that resulted from asserting a claim or defense in a third-party lawsuit. To obtain such expenses, the defendant must have engaged in misconduct that caused the plaintiff to litigate with third parties or placed the plaintiff in a situation in which it was necessary to incur legal expenses to protect an interest.

Consider the following example. Plaintiff Peter owns a car. Defendant David wrongfully takes possession of the vehicle and sells it to a third party, Tom. Paul is now forced to take legal action against Tom to get the vehicle back. Peter also sues David due to his misconduct in taking the car in the first place. Under the Wrongful Act Doctrine, Peter is permitted to collect his lawyer’s fees incurred in the lawsuit against Tom but not the lawyer’s fees in the case between David and him.

As a practical matter, a plaintiff should take the following steps when seeking attorneys’ fees through the Wrongful Act Doctrine:  specifically plead entitlement to such damages in the complaint, clearly establish that the defendant took part in genuinely wrongful conduct (i.e., a crime, fraud, or tort), and clearly establish that the defendant’s conduct was the reason the plaintiff was forced into litigation with the third party.

It is important to note that the doctrine does not allow for an independent cause of action against the defendant. Instead, it just allows the plaintiff to pursue attorney’s fees as one element of damages.

In Florida, the “reasonableness” of attorneys’ fees is generally established by expert testimony. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently held that expert testimony corroborating the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees was not needed when the attorneys’ fees claim was based on the Wrongful Act Doctrine. Another court agreed, explaining that expert testimony was not needed because the Wrongful Act Doctrine is, in and of itself, an element of compensatory damages. As a result, there seems to be a conflict in terms of whether expert testimony is required to establish the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees.

If you or your loved one has been injured in an accident that was not your fault, you may be entitled to compensation from the at-fault party. At the Law Offices of Robert Dixon, our skilled Miami car accident attorneys can examine the facts of your case and vigorously fight for your rights at every step of the way. We believe in holding negligent parties accountable for the harm that they cause. To talk about your case in more detail, call us at 1-877-499-HURT (4878) or reach out to us online today.

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